Entertainment

'Crazy' Filmmaker James Lee, And His Serious Thoughts On How To Survive In The Film Industry

In this last segment of a three part series of interviews with winners of the 2014 Digi WWWOW Awards, Allison Goh brings you the latest insights from some of the greatest powerhouses existing in Malaysia’s cyberspace.

Doghouse 73 Pictures is the brainchild of Malaysian film director James Lee Thim Heng. Born in Ipoh, Malaysia, Lee was originally trained as a graphic designer. He began acting & directing theatre plays before venturing into video filmmaking, relying solely on self-taught skills. Now, he delivers quality independent films to the digital space. Under his guidance, Doghouse 73 Pictures won the 2014 Digi WWWOW Award, Content Category.

From his blogpost regarding winning the DiGi WWWOW Awards, Lee wrote: “I told them (that) when I started, some thought I was crazy to produce short films for free online, but after winning the award I think I could see a clearer future for the company. The organizer replied (that) I won most probably because the judges think I’m crazy.”

In my email correspondence with Lee, I felt pleasantly surprised by his candid views on film-making. Despite the limits of our email correspondence, Lee’s enthusiasm and passion for film shines through his words and paints a vivid picture: less of a crazy man, and more of a dedicated filmmaker optimistic about his craft.

Image Credit: doghouse73pictures.tv
Image Credit: doghouse73pictures.tv

Q: There has been many discussions about the future of film-making, and the threats of the internet to cinema culture and ultimately the livelihood of film makers. However, Doghouse 73 Pictures releases quality videos and films online. Does that threaten your livelihood as a film director?  Why create Doghouse 73, and what are your plans for its sustainability in the future, having won 2014 Digi WWWOW (Content) for the website?

A: I think the cinema won’t cease to exist because audiences will still go for the big tent pole block buster and superheroes movies. In the future, cinema may not be a place to view small and independent films anymore. As digital takes over celluloids, the way audiences consume content will change every generation. It’s important for indie filmmakers to find new ways of funding, producing, and distributing their works.

Currently, Doghouse 73 produces short films, so it doesn’t affect my livelihood, because they generally have very limited commercial value worldwide. In a way it’s good for me because it gives me freedom to experiment and makes garnering publicity easier. Since things move in a break-neck pace on the internet, I believe a filmmaker needs to stay relevant by constantly producing films.

As for sustainability, Doghouse 73 is trying to move into branded and sponsored content. Our objective now is to build a following of people who enjoy narrative films. Eventually we will release feature length films online via Video-On-Demand platforms (VHX, Vimeo, ReelHouse, iTunes etc.)

Even as we live in the age of viral videos, I personally believe that there is still a large number of people who want to watch narrative films online.

Image Credit: http://filmcombatsyndicate.blogspot.sg/
The filming of the action film Second Life, with Lee behind the camera. (Image Credit: http://filmcombatsyndicate.blogspot.sg/)

Q: Money and art, how do you find a balance? It seems to me that you are quite tricky to categorize as a director, having made both commercial and arthouse films – neither a Steven Spielberg nor a Wong Kar Wai. Were you ever worried about not making money or perhaps not gaining critical acclaim?

A: There lies the beauty of the Internet. It allows a filmmakers or creators or artists to work on different directions. I work very hard to not to be categorized, becaus I enjoy exploring and experimenting, that’s why I work both in commercial and art house films. I really dread the idea of only being able to work in one category for the rest of my career. I spent the last 15 years learning the ropes of film production and honing my craft in storytelling, but neglected the business aspect of it. For any art to survive, it needs to be about making money so that one can continue to work and support a livelihood. I am more worried about the financial aspect of film making rather than acclaim and awards. I am more of a practical and efficient filmmaker, or you could say a resource-based filmmaker.

Also read: ‘Pocotee Is A Reflection Of Myself’: Comic Artist Pocotee Loh Shares Her Secrets To Success

Q; On the topic of other film directors, are there any particular ones that you admire? Or if you prefer, what are some of your favourite movies? I feel that sometimes great directors can make terrible movies and not so great directors can also make fantastic movies, so you may prefer to answer either question.

A: It used to be very easy for me to answer this question during my earlier days, but now it’s difficult, and also because I begin to admire a film rather than a filmmaker, because you’re right sometimes great directors can make terrible films. But my favourites at the moment will still be Bruno Dumont, Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorcesse… and a whole lot of others – see I can’t really nail the best!

Image Credit: Doghouse73 Pictures
James Lee’s DiGi Award (Image Credit: Doghouse73 Pictures)

Q: In your opinion, what is a perfect film?

A: I  think there is no such thing as a perfect film, in my opinion even commercial slapstick comedies are very good films (in terms of acting, editing and script) because they are effective and the characters are relate-able. Art house films that I really like have the same effect – they engage the audience, and they questions the audience. The only difference is the execution. I watch both commercial and art house cinemas, because I just love movies in general.

Q: I can think of a lot of benefits of being a film director but I want to hear some of the challenges. What is the worst thing about being a film director and how do you push yourself every day to create new content?

A: I wouldn’t say that there is a worst thing about being a film director, because if there were, I would have stopped a long time ago. To me, the good thing about being a filmmaker is the fact that I still continue to learn, discover and solve problems in each and every project. I get to collaborate with different people, and it challenges me to tell and share a story or vision.

Q: How do you juggle your work and daily activities and maintain Doghouse73?

Once in a while, I try to learn new things that have very little to do with filmmaking. In fact, I’ve recently gotten into Brazilian Ju Jitsu.

The Girl From Tomorrow - by Doghouse73 Pictures (Image Credit: Doghouse73 Pictures)
The Girl From Tomorrow by Doghouse73 Pictures (Image Credit: Doghouse73 Pictures)

Q: As technology advances these days, piracy becomes more of an issue. How hard is it to survive in this market?

Piracy is something that can’t be stop completely. But remember, iTunes and Netflix are proving that there are still quite a number of people in the world willing to pay for films and content. So how the filmmaker deals with that problem is really up to him . Filmmaking is always about solving problems – from writing, pre-production till post production and later distribution.

Q: Lastly, do you have any advice for future film makers and any parting remarks about the Asia film industry?

A: For young and new filmmakers, my one and only advice is to just go and make a film. Technology is getting better and more affordable these days. Unlike 15 years ago, when everything was so expensive from camera to post production, now there is no excuse.  Don’t wait for inspiration or funds. Fund it yourself when you’re inspired, use the internet as a distributional platform. Work with changes and don’t get stuck in a traditional filmmaking mindset. Become a resource-based filmmaker (a better name for “no-budget DIY filmmaking”).

Other than winning the 2014 Digi WWOW Awards (Content) for his online media website, Doghouse73 Pictures, James Lee Thim Heng is a two-time winner of Best ASEAN Film in the Bangkok International Film Festival for his work in The Beautiful Washing Machine. In 2008, horror film, Histeria made him a household name for movie-goers in Malaysia.

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